Laura Moyer is a compulsive copy editor who reads the AP Stylebook for fun.
RSS feed of this blog

Rx: No B.S.

Soon after I started the Red Pen last year, I wrote a column blithely declaring myself a prescriptivist. I’m a copy editor, I said, and copy editors are supposed to be prescriptivists.

A linguist from Perth, Australia, scolded me via email. It was OK for me to be a prescriptivist if I couldn’t help myself, he wrote, but I shouldn’t contaminate others with my beliefs.

I apologized for contaminating him and offered to send a bar of soap.

No need, he replied. “I’ve already boiled my computer.”

Made me laugh. It also made me think more honestly about what good editing is and isn’t.

I do think copy editing requires a degree of prescriptivism, if prescriptivism is defined as adherence to rules of standard English.

Copy editors correct spellings according to a chosen dictionary. We follow Associated Press style, a set of rules for writing with clarity and consistency. We apply punctuation to enhance meaning. We try to keep racial slurs and the most blistering swear words out of the paper unless they’re vital to the reader’s understanding.

But the copy editor’s job isn’t merely to wrangle commas and make sure the words are spelled right. Good copy editing requires thought, nuance and a respect for how people actually use the language.

It’s prescriptivism, but it is a thoughtful prescriptivism, in which the copy editor questions and sometimes declines to enforce certain teachings of standard English.

That might not satisfy my anti-prescriptive critic from Perth. It also wouldn’t satisfy a different type of critic, one who insists that the rules of English are absolute and should be obeyed, period.

One such reader called me this summer in genuine distress over the loss of a rule she was taught by a beloved high school English teacher. She saw failure to follow that rule as a relaxation of standards and a symptom of a declining society.

The rule? That the word “done” should not be used to mean “completed” or “finished,” as in the sentences “My work here is done” or “I’m done eating.”

My response disappointed her. Not only do I not agree with the rule, I don’t even agree that it is a rule. I think it’s merely a preference of that long-ago English teacher who thought “done” sounded unrefined.

But I do know how hard it is to get past such rigid pronouncements, especially those delivered with humor by someone in authority.

For example:

* My favorite high school English teacher used to ding students for writing “a lot” when we meant “many.” A “lot,” he said, is a piece of land.

* A copy desk chief at the first paper I worked for insisted that that guardrails had to be called “guide rails” because they don’t actually guard anything.

* Another refused to accept that states could have “borders.” Only countries have borders, he said. States have lines.

* And many editors still insist that a legal action must always be called a “lawsuit” and never just a “suit,” because a “suit” is clothing.

As a student and young reporter I absorbed such rules. As a copy editor I’ve perpetuated many of them. I truly regret it, because these aren’t rules of good writing. They’re baloney.

So how does a careful 21st-century copy editor tell baloney rules from good practice?

One way is to consult no-B.S. resources that distinguish between useful writing guidelines and outdated or pedantic rules. I like Bryan Garner’s hefty “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” which tempers prescriptivism with practicality; Paul Brians’ website “Common Errors in English Usage”; and Mignon Fogarty’s “Grammar Girl” tips.

But ultimately, a copy editor must trust her ears and eyes. She has to respect the writer and the reader. And she should question whether applying a particular rule truly makes a sentence clearer.

If not, she should back off.